This has been discussed in various places: Hugo Schwyzer's blog, Pandagon. Hugo and Pandagon both focus on women spending much more time on housework, paying jobs, and volunteering -- leaving them less time for leisure activities like playing video games. They discuss the pressure on women to be superwomen, so that they feel like they have to do much more.
I think perfectionism is a big issue -- but it may not be all about free time. Girls learn at a very early age that failure is not okay. And enjoying video games is all about failing. But the solution is in the problem: video games can teach you to fail.
In an article titled "The Trouble With Bright Girls," Dr. Heidi Grant Halvorson talks about girls' reaction to failure:
What makes smart girls more vulnerable and less confident when they should be the most confident kids in the room? […] The only difference was how bright boys and girls interpreted difficulty -- what it meant to them when material seemed hard to learn. Bright Girls were much quicker to doubt their ability, to lose confidence and to become less effective learners as a result. [bold emphasis added]Halvorson gives a suggestion for why this happens:
Girls, who develop self-control earlier and are better able to follow instructions, are often […] told that we are "so smart," "so clever, " or "such a good student." This kind of praise implies that traits like smartness, cleverness and goodness are qualities you either have or you don't.
What does this have to do with video games? Very simply: Most video games require failure. The whole idea is that you try a new level, fail at it, learn from your mistake, and try again. In fact, that's often the fun of it: the sense of accomplishment when you finally get through a tricky level. Nicole Lazzaro, president of XEODesign Inc. and expert in player experience design, calls this "hard fun." [PDF link] In one interview, Lazzaro said:
[O]n the other hand, […] just trying to get boys to sit still and pay attention is a real challenge for any parent or teacher. As a result, boys are given a lot more feedback that emphasizes effort (e.g., "If you would just pay attention you could learn this," "If you would just try a little harder you could get it right.") The net result: When learning something new is truly difficult, girls take it as sign that they aren't "good" and "smart," and boys take it as a sign to pay attention and try harder. [bold emphasis added]
In fact you have to feel frustrated, and so frustrated you’re about ready to throw the controller through the window. If then at that point you win that’s when you get that feeling like yes, we really did it. Very, very powerful emotion and players will play hours of games, both hardcore and casual gamers will play hours to get that kind of feeling.But for many girls, "hard fun" isn't fun. If you've internalized the message that not immediately mastering something means you aren't "good" and "smart" -- that tricky level is just miserable and demoralizing. Even if you finally manage it, it feels like a hollow victory. Your repeated failures just prove how stupid you are and how terrible you are at this game. After all, if you were any good at it, you would have beaten the level on the first try -- right?
It doesn't help that often, a girl is playing video games in front of a brother, guy friend, or boyfriend, who's constantly giving "helpful advice." ("No, do this, jump here, now run across that.") That just confirms her perception that her mistakes are really stupid, and she's not very good at this game. As Amanda Marcotte wrote, "I didn’t realize I like video games until I was given a chance to play without a dude up in my shit explaining it to me." (See comment #13 at the linked post.)
Or, as morningface wrote at comment #48 under that post,
Whenever I have picked up a controller with other people present, there is usually a lot of input from the peanut gallery on what I am supposed to be doing, what buttons I should press, etc. It makes doing something I am unfamiliar with even more confusing and pressure-filled and less enjoyable. I would expect that many women have less experience playing video games than the men in their lives, and having a backseat driver harass you while you are trying to do something fun just isn’t worth it. [bold emphasis added]Most guys I've known specifically will not offer advice when another guy is playing. They explain that would be insulting and belittling -- as though they thought he was too stupid to figure it out. Well, yeah.
So when people say "Women just aren't interested in video games," there's a tiny grain of truth. Most people mean certain kinds of games, where enjoyment primarily comes from succeeding after repeated failures. Since girls learn early that failure means you're just not smart, of course many of them won't be interested. If you always felt stupid and incompetent while doing something, would you be very interested?
But here's the other side of the coin: Video games can teach girls how to fail without feeling like failures.
Penny Arcade did a relevant comic, and Tycho gave some insightful commentary:
I am trained - intensely trained - to fail and select retry, that is to say, to iterate. […] Approaching actual problems as interesting, eminently achievable, potentially fun exercises with a confidence borne of past successes is a pretty good way to travel. [bold emphasis added]The associated comic makes clear that video games teach you that you can handle any problem by trying and retrying. It's okay to mess up. You'll get another try. Boys are learning these real-life problem-solving skills, and the self-confidence to use them. When girls don't play video games, they miss out on this training.
Jane McGonigal addresses failure in her book Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better And How They Can Change The World. As she writes in a February 2011 column at the Huffington Post,
When we play a good game, we get to practice being the best version of ourselves: We become more optimistic, more creative, more focused, more likely to set ambitious goals, and more resilient in the face of failure. [bold emphasis added]In fact, the best-designed games actually reward failure by making it entertaining. The M.I.N.D. Labs in Helsinki, Finland, studied how people felt while playing Super Monkey Ball 2 -- and found that every time they failed, they registered pleasure. Why? Because when you fail, the monkey goes flying off into space, hilariously. Not only is it funny to watch, but it also reinforces the player's sense of agency: you flung the monkey!
With that "active failure," your brain is primed to respond to failure with excitement, optimism, and a desire to try it again. Maybe playing games can actually re-train how you respond emotionally to failure.
Girls stay away from video games in part because they've been taught that it's not okay to fail. But video games can teach them that it is okay to fail -- that things can be more fun if you have to make several tries. Maybe if girls start gaming young, they'll be better equipped to push back against perfectionistic social conditioning. Maybe they'll be better able to stay self-confident.
P.S. It's interesting to note that Angry Birds players are a much more gender-balanced group -- even though Angry Birds definitely involves a lot of "hard fun." Lots of possible factors, but I think "active failure" has a lot to do with it. Even when you don't squish all the pigs, you make something happen. Instant sense of agency and control. When the act of failing itself proves that you can accomplish something, it's a lot easier to keep your self-confidence and feel excited about your ability to succeed if you try it just one more time…